By Dedeepya Guthikonda
Sun Current Intern
Less than a month before the school year was set to start, teachers across the Edina school district were scrambling to create three different sets of schedules, curriculum and calendars as they prepared for the beginning of hybrid learning. This was only a preview of the trying times to come.
“It’s putting an extraordinary amount of stress on our teachers,” Thomas Connell, president of Education Minnesota Edina, the district’s teachers union, said as he reflected on a semester like no other.
He mentioned an email he had received from a teacher in the district a few months back, describing how it took her “five hours to put together a lesson that lasts maybe an hour.” This workload is only one of the many challenges teachers throughout the district have faced during an unpredictable school year that, despite the uncertainty brought by the COVID-19 pandemic, has long been taking shape.
Deciding on a learning model
Before the school year had begun, focus groups composed of students, parents and staff were already underway. Their purpose was to provide feedback to help the administration decide among the various learning model proposals.
“Principal Beaton came back with several different formulations, so he revised them based on student and parent input and revised them again based on staff input,” said Jason Dockter, government teacher at Edina High School.
Still, most teachers are only contracted for 184 days, meaning they did not return to work until the week before Labor Day. When they returned, adapting to the hybrid model with so much still unknown – “when there weren’t really answers yet to some of those questions around,” as Connell said – left many teachers creating plans that worked for them individually.
“We saw teachers start to create their own efficiencies and other teachers finding that out and working with them and figuring out a way to get it done,” Connell said. “It might not have been 100% exactly how it was planned, but was the most effective way for them to teach.”
Not surprisingly, the prospect of returning to in-person learning proved to be a safety concern.
“There was no data that would tell us that sitting in a room with 15 to 20 other people trying to maintain a 6-foot distance with masks was going to be effective,” Dockter said. “A different concern was that if I was a staff member that had a health condition, would I personally be safe in that environment, or if I had a family member at home that had a health condition.”
According to Dockter, many were unsure of the district’s willingness to grant accommodations. “If they held to a strict definition of the Americans with Disabilities Act there would not have been any accommodations,” Dockter said. However, the federal government proposed a loose interpretation of the Americans with Disabilities Act amid the pandemic to allow for teacher accommodations.
“I was definitely worried about the risk of exposure at school,” said Mary Stucynksi, a history teacher at EHS who suffers from a weakened immune system and is caring for a newborn at home. Stucynksi is one of the few teachers who has exclusively taught online this entire semester due to her accommodation.
“We had a substantial number of people that requested accommodations,” Connell said. He noted accommodations are not limited to allowing teaching from home; they are also applicable to safety measures such as requesting a filter or Plexiglass in classrooms.
Due to the nature of hybrid learning, though, the district was not able to grant all of the requests, according to Connell.
“You need to have people in front of the kids in the hybrid model,” he said. “There’s only a certain amount (of exemptions) you can grant.”
Licensed school nurses have faced especially high stress levels, Connell observed. He considers that group the “gatekeepers,” as they are responsible for identifying and isolating students with COVID-19 symptoms, as well as those who have come into contact with symptomatic students
In collaboration with the Minnesota Department of Health, Bloomington Public Health, and Hennepin County Public Health, the registered nurses take into account city- and county-specific updates and recommendations, according to Gretchen Gosh, a licensed school nurse at Edina High School.
The team operates with a confidential student tracking document that is used for every student that provides COVID-19 symptoms in their attendance notifications. “For each student that is added to the tracking document, the student’s parent/guardian receives a call back to monitor symptoms and provide detailed information for when the student is able to return to the building,” Gosh said.
Gosh mentions that staffing health offices around the district has proved a significant challenge throughout the school year. “As the virus became more widespread, Edina Public Schools Health Services staff were needing to be absent from work due to isolation or quarantine guidelines,” Gosh said. That, she explained, meant nurses had to work at sites other than their own, and sometimes cover multiple buildings on the same day.
“As case rates ebb and flow we are continually meeting to connect among various incident command teams,” Gosh said.
Due to the unpredictability of the pandemic, teachers have faced many last-minute changes and details.
“Communication has been tricky this year since so many things have changed quickly as new information or rules come out,” Stucynski said. “Changes were definitely communicated last minute, but that’s also because they had to be decided last minute given the nature of this pandemic being constantly changing.”
And due to this changing nature of the pandemic, there have been times when teachers are looped into communication at the same time as students and families. For example, the mid-November switch from hybrid learning to an exclusively online model was communicated in a staff meeting one day prior to the shift, according to Connell.
Since the start of the year, though, communication between teachers and administration has evolved.
“(At the beginning) they weren’t as responsive as teachers would want but they got around talking to everybody,” Dockter said. “I’m sure there’s probably some teachers out there that felt their concerns were not addressed, or were not addressed in a timely manner, or the resolution that was offered was not the one that they were hoping for. But I think that the district made efforts to address everybody’s concerns.”
One way the district has sought teachers’ input is through surveys, which were sent out during the summer and throughout the school year. Some of these surveys came from the district, others from the teachers union, and some directly from the state of Minnesota.
Additionally, there are working groups that meet with district administration to advocate on behalf of teachers. One such group, which Connell is part of, is the Incident Command Team, an assemblage of staff members that was initiated as part of an executive order from Gov. Tim Walz.
Now, more than ever, teachers are “empowered,” as Connell puts it, to communicate with their supervisors and district administration – or even the school board directly. As president of the teachers union, Connell encourages such activity, which allows teachers to reflect on concerns that include increased stress levels.
“There’s a really heightened sense of anxiety right now, because of this pandemic,” Connell said. Results from the surveys, according to Connell, reveal the overwhelming levels of stress teachers are facing right now, with changing learning models and the subsequent added workload alongside the general safety concerns of the pandemic.
“There are always frustrations,” he said. “But there has been a pretty substantial amount of communication work where these teachers are allowed to voice their concerns, and sometimes it’ll come through me.”
When asked what administration could do to facilitate more communication, Connell says the answer is “flexibility,” which is key for teachers to communicate their concerns through their working groups.
Of the concerns brought on by the pandemic, perhaps the most difficult is teachers’ struggles to establish relationships with students.
“It’s harder to make connections with students over computer screens and deal with some technology difficulties,” Stucynski said. “There are a lot of activities that don’t translate as well to distance as they do to being in-person, but it has also made me try to be more creative on workarounds.”
However, with the online-only learning model now in place, she admits things are easier since they don’t have to split the students between several groups.
As adjustments continue, Dockter sees the pandemic as a potential catalyst for innovation.
“The structure of school itself – having to attend school in a building, having to attend class in a classroom – was a crutch, a crutch that we were dependent upon and not very willing to move away from,” Dockter said. “But we found with the pandemic, that crutch has been taken away, having to deliver instruction in a lot of different ways.”